Why Sex Worker Advocates Are Furious Over Backpage.com Removing Adult Ads

January 10th 2017

The advertising platform Backpage.com has shuttered its adult listings after a U.S. Senate investigation alleged it was intentionally modifying ads to hide evidence of child trafficking. But some question whether that's a good thing, arguing the death of Backpage will only push the sex trade deeper into the shadows while hurting legitimate sex workers.

Backpage Escort section censored BackPage / screenshot - backpage.com

Backpage, one of the internet’s largest classified ad sites, was launched in 2004 and grew in popularity after Craigslist shut down its adult content section in 2010.  Since then, the website has faced ever-increasing pressure from politicians and anti-trafficking activists to stop advertising commercial sex. In early July 2015, this pressure resulted in Visa and Mastercard refusing to process any transactions made through Backpage, including the fee paid by users to post ads.  

Sex workers, on the other hand, have rallied behind websites like Backpage.

Protest for Sex Worker's Rights Slut Walk London 2011Flickr/msmornington - flic.kr

Platforms like Backpage and myRedbook.com, which was shut down in 2014, enabled sex workers to work safely inside instead of on the streets where they’re subject to arrest and abuse. Backpage in particular gave low-income sex workers access to the same services offered by expensive sites with membership fees. In a 2015 statement responding to the credit card companies’ blockade, Lindsay Roth, an advocate with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, explained. “Those who may have worked independently prior to the policy change may now have to rely on third parties, including traffickers.”  

According to a post on Backpage.com, even some members of law enforcement have defended the platform, citing its assistance in criminal investigations.

“I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” reads a note said to be from someone with the Denver Police Department. “I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”  

In a statement released by Children of the Night, an organization that rescues children from prostitution, founder and president Dr. Lois Lee described Backpage as a “vital resource” and an “investigative tool” used by law enforcement not only to rescue exploited children, but also to arrest those involved in abduction or trafficking. “Child prostitution existed long before Backpage or the Internet,” she concluded. “Backpage is not the cause or even a cause.”  

But other hard-line opponents of sex work celebrated Backpage's move, arguing there's no difference between children forced into prostitution and consensual adults engaging in sex work — and that ads for the latter do not constitute free speech.

“The predatory sale of human beings for sex via the Internet is not speech; it is rape," Lori Cohen of Sanctuary for Families told Newsweek.

Despite this support, the platform removed its listing of adult services on Monday after what it called “unconstitutional government censorship.” The Senate’s 53-page report had accused the platform of “scrubbing” words like “teenage” and “rape” from ads in order to “conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.”

Advocates and sex workers agree that taking down Backpage ultimately does little to address the real issues facing sex workers and trafficked women. “Removing an ad website doesn’t address exploitation or violence sex workers may face,” author and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant wrote in an article for Pacific Standard. “In the meantime,” she explained, “prosecutors issue press releases and use the media to reinforce their claims that all this is meant to protect vulnerable people.”

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